Pregame Pep Talk: Shaky starts something to watch with Watson, plus picks and X-Factors

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson throws passes during warm ups before the start of an NCAA college football game against Appalachian State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Deshaun Watson’s opening drives in 2015 have hardly been Heisman-worthy.

Watch the tape. Against Wofford, he completed all six passes, but his receivers bailed him out. His delivery was low to Ray-Ray McCloud, behind Artavis Scott, and regrettably under-the-radar, if he hadn’t forced Mike Williams to go so high in the back of the end zone on the first drive of a game against an FCS opponent Clemson was supposed to beat by a bunch of points ... well, Williams might not have suffered the injury he did.

Against App State, trying to force the ball to Charone Peake, Watson was intercepted on his second throw of the day, and 24th of the season. He was only picked twice on 137 attempts in 2014.

Not saying that’s how it’ll always be with the best offensive player on the field tonight at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. But I asked Watson on Monday if he’s one of those players who feels nervous when the game begins and needs time to dig in, or if he’s settled from the word ‘go.’

“I bet every player would tell you they have butterflies,” Watson said. “But really whenever the ball’s kicked off, after that first play I’m ready to go. I’ll just be anxious to get on the field when I’m tired of waiting.”

Is it more difficult for a primetime showdown, when the waiting is much longer than a 12:30 kick?

“I don’t think so,” Watson said. “I guess for some people it might be, but I’m used to the night games, and I’m ready for any moment anytime we kick off.”

Watson has not shied away from the spotlight, in terms of his performance. He had that head-turning touchdown throw to Peake in the Georgia game, and was very good in a hostile environment off the bench at Florida State. And then, of course, he shook the monkey off Clemson’s back last Nov. 29 vs. South Carolina.

But know this: Deshaun Watson has never started, and finished, a game outside Memorial Stadium. This is new territory for No. 4.

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#9 Wayne Gallman, 6-1, 215, soph., RB, Clemson. With all that said on Watson, this game needs to be won on the ground. At the time of last year’s game, Adam Choice had quickly become the lead back, but he was only mildly proficient (16 carries, 61 yards) against the Cardinals’ D, which ended up a top-ten rush defense but hasn’t been nearly as good so far in 2015. Gallman’s clip last year on Oct. 11: four carries, nine yards.

#57 Jay Guillermo, 6-3, 325, jr., C, Clemson. Professional reporters don’t root for teams or results. We root for stories. Ryan Norton’s got a good story. He’s got a real good story I’m excited to tell later this fall. But it’s impossible not to be a bit inspired by the winding journey of Guillermo, who in all honesty has a real opportunity to seize the starting center spot for good if he plays fast, physical, and can hit Watson in the hands on those darned shotgun snaps.

#98 Sheldon Rankins, 6-2, 303, sr., DE, Louisville. Meet the best defensive player on the field tonight, a potential first-round draft pick in the 2016 NFL draft who will give Mitch Hyatt and Joe Gore a test like they’ve never seen before.

#25 Josh Harvey-Clemons, 6-5, 230, jr., S, Louisville. He was on the receiving end of the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, but has transferred from Georgia and become the leader of the Cardinals’ backfield, which has to hold up its end to complement an above-average front seven.

#8 Lamar Jackson, 6-3, 196, fr., QB, Louisville. And for all we know, he might not play a down tonight. Bobby Petrino’s mum on who’s starting, and who’s playing. From what I’ve seen, Jackson’s play-extending scrambles and fleet feet give Louisville the best chance to disrupt Clemson’s rhythm on defense.

#19 Ja’Quay Savage, 6-3, 214, soph., WR, Louisville. Not only does he have an awesome name ... not only does he have eight catches, tied for the team lead with three others (all freshmen), and one of the team’s two receiving scores ... not only does he have to help step up in the absence of injured James Quick ... somebody’s got to take the top off Clemson’s defense.

#10 Ben Boulware, 5-11, 240, jr., LB, Clemson. All reports are B.J. Goodson, Boulware’s fellow starting linebacker, is fine after getting a ‘stinger’ (neck injury) last week. But if Goodson’s not 100 percent, Boulware’s got to put up one of those 13-tackle kind of games.

#90 Shaq Lawson, 6-3, 270, jr., DE, Clemson. Three Thursday night games in his career. 7.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks.

#4 Dalvin Cook, 5-11, 202, soph., RB, Florida State. Apparently his legal troubles behind him, Cook won Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week for putting up 266 yards and three TDs on South Florida. Cook won’t have to be that spectacular, but pretty darn good, for FSU’s trip north to Chestnut Hill.

#14 DeShone Kizer, 6-4, 230, soph., QB, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish’s hopes are all Kizer, with Malik Zaire out for the year with a broken ankle. Pretty tasty set of QB matchups coming up; first it’s Kizer and Justin Thomas, and in a couple weeks, DeShone vs. Deshaun.

#6 Jeremy Johnson, 6-5, 240, jr., QB, Auburn. If it seems like these blogs are very heavy on quarterbacks to watch, it’s only because the position is that danged important. Nobody in a Power 5 conference has thrown more picks than Jeremy Johnson’s five, and that very nearly let Louisville come all the way back and very nearly lost a game to Jacksonville State. Auburn’s defense hasn’t improved enough for the Tigers to go anywhere relevant unless Johnson gets his game in order.

#10 Chad Kelly, 6-2, 215, jr.., QB, Ole Miss. Your national passer rating leader, completing 29-of-40 passes for 557 yards (13.4 an attempt!!!) and six scores with a pick. Heeeeee’s baaaaaaaaaaaaack.

#12 Tanner Mangum, 6-3, 210, fr., QB, BYU. Jesus, Joseph Smith and Hail Mary. I’m doubling down.

No. 11 Clemson at Louisville ~ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN

If Clemson loses, it’s not Clemsoning. It’s EveryOtherProgramInCollegeFootballing. But there’s a distinct chance Louisville simply isn’t good enough to match up with Clemson – depth might become a factor in the fourth quarter with both teams on short rest. Brenner picks: Tigers 24, Cardinals 23

No. 18 Auburn at No. 13 LSU ~ 3:30 p.m., CBS

Auburn should not be ranked this week. Brenner picks: Bayou Bengals 34, War Eagles 17

No. 15 Ole Miss at No. 2 Alabama ~ 9:15 p.m., ESPN

Imagine the Runnin Rebs win. Their quarterback instantly becomes a Heisman contender. (Clemson fans, you might be familiar.) However, I’m going to predict Ole Miss’ current scoring average of 74.5 points per game takes a slight dip this weekend. Brenner picks: Crimson Tide 38, Rebels 35

No. 19 BYU at No. 10 UCLA ~ 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

You know, BYU, it’s OK to schedule a nice easy Saturday against an unranked, tradition-poor program.) Brenner picks: Bruins 40, Cougars 24

@Boston College 24, No. 9 Florida State 17 (Friday). On Sept. 14, 2014, the Eagles beat the ninth-ranked team in the country at home under the lights by a touchdown with 452 rushing yards on the night. On Sept. 18, 2015, the Eagles beat the ninth-ranked team in the country at home under the lights by a touchdown with ... well, far fewer rushing yards than 452, but still, a clock-controlled fuss that finally snaps the Seminoles’ long ACC winning streak.

No. 23 Northwestern 25, @Duke 21. The Wildcats are the third-highest ranked team in the Big Ten. They beat two top-20 teams last year (Wisconsin and Notre Dame, the latter on the road) and lost at home to Cal, Northern Illinois and Illinois to miss a bowl. You try figuring out Pat Fitzgerald’s program.

@Miami 34, Nebraska 30. The Hurricanes need this one, with Cincinnati, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Duke up next on the schedule.

Wofford 45, @Idaho 42. FCS over FBS alert! FCS over FBS alert!

@No. 7 Georgia 28, South Carolina 15. It’s just hard to see the Gamecocks putting up many points between the hedges. Or to see them keeping Nick Chubb out of the end zone fewer than two or three (or four) times.

Colorado State 38, Colorado 35 in Denver. Rams rule the Rocky Mountain Showdown.

@Kentucky 24, Florida 17. “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Man, can you believe the ‘Cats took second place in the SEC East?”

Rutgers 9, @Penn State 6. The Dysfunction Bowl.

@No. 6 USC 40, Stanford 20. Cody Kessler so far: seven TDs, 12 incompletions, no picks.

@No. 3 TCU 56, SMU 28. Was Chad Morris aware of this schedule when he took the Mustangs’ gig?

No. 14 Georgia Tech at No. 8 Notre Dame ~ 3:30 p.m., NBC

So Gene Sapakoff were discussing on our drive, somewhere in eastern Tennessee, which result aids the Tigers better going forward in the event Clemson needs style points come December. My conclusion: no harm, no foul, either way. In all likelihood, Death Valley is going to host one, but not two, top-ten opponents in early October. The loser of this game will drop out, and won’t recover in the top ten, by the time they face the Tigers. Currently, Georgia Tech’s future looks rosier, both because of the schedule and team’s health. Think of it this way, from Clemson’s perspective: if Notre Dame holds serve at home, Clemson could knock the Irish from, say, the top five or top seven on Oct. 3, then perhaps beat Georgia Tech twice this fall. I’m going to hesitantly trust the home team, but something to mind: Paul Johnson defeated Notre Dame in 2007, his final year at Navy, and Navy’s triple option averaged 36.5 points per game the past two years. That said, Notre Dame’s won four straight against Navy – granted, the talent level’s not on par with Georgia Tech, but it’s the same offensive style.

Brenner picks: Fighting Irish 37, Yellow Jackets 35

Last week: 11-3 (identical to my week 1 record)

Best Calls: My picks: Oklahoma 31-28 and Michigan State 30-27. Actual scores: Oklahoma 31-24 and Michigan State 31-28. I’m not a player, I just crush a lot.

Worst Calls: Well, fine, South Carolina, be that way and throw your 2015 bowl future into jeopardy. And that’s the last time I trust Wake Forest.

Track record: 22-6

That’s it for the Pep Talk. Tonight’s a statement game for the team in upstate South Carolina. Let’s see if the Tigers are up to the challenge.

-AB